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The cost of winning
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 21 - 08 - 2008

Sports clubs are crammed to overflowing in summer. But is the pressure to succeed taking the fun out of sport, asks Nashwa Abdel-Tawab
Playing sports is better than staying at home. It's a great way to learn new skills, socialise, learn team work and have fun. That, at least, is how it should be. Sadly, it is now the exception to the rule in many clubs.
Some children dream of becoming champions, as if the riches and fame that come with winning can be conjured with a magic wand. Then they are faced with the system, fitness, negative comments, frustrations and sometimes punishment. Many coaches, it seems, are determined to strip training sessions of any element of fun. Other children take sports as seriously as school. With talent, financial resources, parental support and good coaching they may emulate the achievements of stars like swimmer Rania Elwani or squash world champion Ahmed Barada. For the majority, though, whose families lack the requisite financial resources, there is little opportunity to play for fun, let alone dream of becoming a champion. When someone discovers talent in underprivileged kids and assists them they respond with passion and can make an impact on society as have soccer stars Bibo and Abu Treika, swimming legend Ismail Abu Heif and Olympic gold medallist wrestler Karam Gaber.
Sports clubs, though, are generally the preserve of the affluent. Indeed, in recent decades, sports themselves have increasingly fallen prey to privatisation. So what is it that leads parents to spend so much time and effort, not to mention money, on driving their children on to excel?
PARENTS' AIM: "Kids have to play sport more in summer," says Inas, a working mother with two kids. "During school there is no extra time for fun, only homework, study and maybe one sport once or twice a week. But when school is out, the sun is shining, and kids are bored the key is to keep them busy. But remember, having fun in Egypt, like anything else in the country, has become expensive."
"I don't deny that some parents enrol their kids on sports courses as a replacement for a babysitter. Others want their children to become champions but the majority are like me. I want my children to be fit and healthy and learn basic skills. If I keep them at home in summer they end up watching TV and playing computer games all the time. They can end up short-sighted, inactive and lacking skills. In the summer I restrict them to an hour of television before bedtime and send them to educational camps in the morning."
Inas's arguments reflect a growing generation gap. Once there were sports, TV, games, puzzles, music, friends, neighbours, family and books. Now, though, Inas and many other parents see a sporting agenda as the only way to while away the summer months. But it costs. Both her children do three sports, each of which involves a two-hour training session twice a week. Eight-year-old Nadine does swimming, gymnastics and ballet, six-year-old Zeyad swimming, karate and football. For gymnastics, ballet and karate they go to the Shams Sporting Club in Cairo. Swimming is at the private school of Cairo Stadium and Zeyad's football training at Mahmoud El-Khatib's private soccer school in Rehab city. The latter involves Inas in an hour and a half round trip.
El-Khatib -- Bibo -- was one of Egypt's most popular footballers. His private school is one of many and it is among the more reasonable. Inas pays LE300 for Zeyad's kit and LE1,600 in fees. Arsenal and AC Milan's private soccer schools in Egypt cost between LE4,000-6,000 a year. Barcelona takes an LE500 registration fee, the same sum for the football strip and LE500 every month. One goalkeeper charges LE150 an hour to train young goalkeepers for tests at major clubs. Football is hardly the people's sport.
"My kids like tennis which is an expensive sport," says mother of two Sherine. "As children we used to play tennis at the club but that was 25 years ago. Now it's a mafia."
"An old coach trains the kids at the club school for 15 minutes each and charges LE80 for three days a week. Then there are private groups of four kids. Each player gets 20 minutes individual tuition for LE140 per month. Then there are special groups outside clubs where the kid plays alone for half an hour for three days a week. A month can cost up to LE700. This summer I sent my 10-year-old daughter and kept the six-year-old at home. I can't afford to pay for both on top of language and music courses. I want my kids to be fit, to have friends and be able to play the way we used to play as children but the cost of it all is frustrating."
There are, too, parents who see their children's talent at a particular sport as a path to upward social mobility. Sayed, a 49-year-old chef, worked hard to enrol his 11-year-old son, Ashraf, in the junior team at Tersana club.
"Ashraf is talented and he is my investment now," says Sayed. "I can't afford to wait for a lucky chance. I'm doing everything I can to make sure I become the father of a famous footballer."
Sayed does not shy away from announcing his aims, clearly relishing the prospect of the money Ashraf might earn, while other parents might be less explicit.
There are those parents who are absolutely determined that their children succeed. When Nesrine noted that her second child, Salem, had a talent for swimming and the right physique her own life was put on hold. Salem trains all year round and has extra sessions in the summer. His routine is strict: wake up at 4.30am, swimming between 5am till 7am in term time, and for an extra two hours during the holidays at the Swim Academy at Cairo British International School (LE1,500 a month), then exercises in the gymnasium between 5pm to 7pm and back to the pool again for another two hours.
Nesrine accompanies her son throughout his training. "People leave their kids most of the time at the club but they develop bad habits alone. They eat unhealthy junk food, go to the cinema, are exposed to drugs and homosexual behaviour. If parents want their kids to play sports they should try to be around. Clubs are not a safe environment because many coaches care more about making money than the children in their charge."
THE CHILDREN SPEAK: Thirteen-year-old Salem, who has already won national medals, sometimes finds his routine exhausting.
"I love swimming though sometimes I get tired. But I am not allowed to miss a day. What I do sometimes in summer that I can't do during school time is go to the cinema with my friends and eat out but not for more than two and half hours maximum. I can't play soccer because I will feel worn out."
Mustafa, 14, and his sister Lubna, 11, have started with a tennis coach at the Zamalek club and were not impressed.
"We start with ten minutes fitness then take a five minutes break then get half an hour on tennis skills though there are five in the group so we barely get five minutes each," says Mustafa. "Because of numbers the court is divided into two of three. We can't play freely and we learn the basic skills of the game wrong. When dad complained about it the coach suggested giving us private lessons. If dad didn't complain we would have paid money to learn nothing except greed and not doing a job properly. That's what I learned from my first experience of sports this summer."
Not that everyone has the same opportunities. Twelve year-old Karim, whose father is a taxi driver and mother a housewife, comes almost every morning alone to stand in front of his favourite club, Zamalek, hoping the doors might open on the road to stardom.
"I know I'm not privileged. I come alone without my family. I don't have good shoes or an expensive strip. I don't have anyone to back me, but I know I have talent so I won't lose hope," says Karim. "But when I see other kids with training suits and rich parents I think that life is not fair."
THE EXPERTS' VIEW: In a recent study Talha Hossameddin, biomechanics professor at the Faculty of Physical Education, estimates that Egyptians spend almost LE17 billion annually on private sports training, while the annual budget allocated to Egypt's sports governing body is LE385 million. "The amount parents pay for private training exceeds the LE7 billion they fork out on private lessons," points out Hossameddin.
"There is a huge amount of waste, of money, effort, human resources and talent. There are families that want their kids to win because the parents did not. Parents and coaches should help children select sports that are best suited to their physical abilities but they are ignorant."
Hossameddin believes emphasis on early success is misplaced. "There are too many competitions for children. Endurance appears just before maturity and if children are pressured earlier they will never be champions. And 90 per cent of coaches are untrained or unprofessional. Parents, coaches, schools and sports bodies are not doing their job and failing the kids. We see clubs crammed with children who do more than one sport but we don't have champions."
"Kids may not seem to have worries but even the luckiest do," says sports psychologist Ahmed Salah. "They may not have adult concerns but they want to be accepted by their peers, please their teachers and coaches and not upset their parents. However, they face disappointments and frustrations while trying to prove themselves on the sport field. And as they learn and grow and deal with disappointments new worries emerge. We should develop their mental and physical well-being as well as their skills rather than pressing them hard, stripping them of their childhood, denying them fun and taking the sportsmanship from sport."
There are many kids who want to play sports to develop skills in individual games, and to do that we have to train players individually," says swimming coach and a lecturer Iyad Khalil. "Ahli club, for example, had 60 swimmers who train in four lanes at the same time. How can a coach follow and develop their skills? It's impossible. Clubs resorted to private lessons as a way to guarantee success and high quality representation in competitions. They provide clubs with extra income and the coaches with a reasonable salary."


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